Transitional Justice Symposium: Transitional Justice and the Relationship between Scholarship and Activism

Transitional Justice Symposium: Transitional Justice and the Relationship between Scholarship and Activism

[Iavor Rangelov is Assistant Professorial Research Fellow at the London School of Economics and Chair of the Board of Governors of the Humanitarian Law Center, Belgrade.]

The publication of Ruti Teitel’s Transitional Justice coincided with the emergence of the former Yugoslavia from a decade of war and repression that had transformed the region’s social and political landscape. The hostilities and atrocities had ended but the transitions that ensued appeared to be tentative and precarious at best. The wartime projects pursued with ethnic cleansing and atrocity crimes were entrenched in political settlements that rewarded the extremists and a patchwork of ethnic states, entities and enclaves mobilising mutually exclusive nationalisms. 

The premise of Transitional Justice in exploring a distinctive conception of justice associated with periods of radical political change, the underling notion of transition, seemed to be called into question in a region marked by deep continuities in politics and power structures, where few genuine openings for transformative change could be detected. A significant number of war crimes trials were initiated at the time in a variety of international, national and hybrid jurisdictions; however, these legal responses seemed to unfold in a political context dominated by opposition and resistance to them, their impact in the region diminished in the face of complicit elites and reluctant publics.

And yet, Teitel’s language, conceptual frame and analysis of transitional justice had remarkable resonance in the Balkans. Transitional Justice played an important role in shaping the emerging conversations in the region about responding to the legacies of the Yugoslav wars of disintegration, particularly among civil society actors, informing some of their thinking and indeed efforts to respond. The significance of the book in the Balkans stems from its resonance and traction in civil society, an intriguing example of the often underappreciated relationship between scholarship and activism.

One reason for that resonance and traction had to do with the search for a new civil society language after the war. Civic activists and public intellectuals, many of them linked to the anti-war movement and human rights struggles of the previous decade, needed a different vocabulary to make sense of the new environment in the post-Yugoslav space and the distinctive challenges and openings associated with it. Many of these actors had been involved in efforts to document and report human rights violations during the 1990s and had advocated for the establishment of an international criminal tribunal, hoping that it might help disrupt the wartime networks that benefited economically and politically from the conflict.

Transitional justice seemed to offer a new vocabulary to civil society actors but also a set of ideas and practices that fit their long-standing interpretations of the war and the role of mass atrocities in pursuing its goals and methods. At a practical level, transitional justice resonated with the civil society emphasis on documenting abuses during the war and provided a strategy for using that documentation in new, forward-looking ways in the post-war period.

To be sure, a variety of actors were involved in the diffusion of the discourse and practice of transitional justice in the early 2000s. International NGOs, experts and consultants were particularly active in the Balkans and other global regions emerging from periods of war and political repression. Their efforts, however, were not always seen as helpful and legitimate by local civil society, especially when they seemed to promote one-size-fits-all, technical solutions to complex political problems and partnered with governments adept at coopting and subverting the transitional justice agenda.

The appeal of Teitel’s work for civil society in the Balkans had a lot to do with her focus on exploring “profound dilemmas,” framing the questions in ways that precluded easy answers and tackling the issues by bringing out their complex and fraught nature. Challenging the notion that activism is inherently about simplifying ideas so they can be easily translated into a set of clear objectives and strategies, civil society actors engaged with Transitional Justice precisely because it encouraged them to reflect on the dilemmas and complexities and re-evaluate some of their objectives and strategies.

The book’s focus on third-wave transitions from dictatorship to democracy in Latin America and Eastern Europe and its engagement with historical material from other contexts resonated in interesting and unexpected ways.

On the one hand, there was real hunger among activists and intellectuals in the region for insights and knowledge generated from the experience of other contexts. On the other, the post-conflict states in the Balkans were undergoing a double transition from war to peace and from repressive to democratic rule. The context seemed very different. Far from diminishing the relevance of the book, however, that ended up triggering conversations about the distinctive logic and characteristics of post-conflict justice and its relationship to peace and political liberalisation.

The implication was that the book was offering civil society actors in the region an interpretive frame rather than an analytical straitjacket for thinking about transitional justice. In considering some of the affinities and differences of their own experiences compared to those of other societies confronting legacies of injustice discussed in the book, activists and intellectuals could be triggered by Teitel’s analysis without being constrained by it. At a time when many international actors were brining to the Balkans policy templates and prescriptions that seemed to depoliticize the issues and foreclose critical discussion, Transitional Justice appeared to be doing the opposite. It was opening up space for debate and deliberation.

Since these early debates, the evolution of civil society thinking and activism in the Balkans has continued to be influenced by Teitel’s work on transitional justice and, in turn, it has been informing and shaping her more recent work.

Some of the central dilemmas of transitional justice in the former Yugoslavia have to do with the persistence of political projects and power structures from the war and the mismatch between the state-centric nature of justice instruments and the regional character of the wars in the 1990s and their legacies of abuse. The paradigm of transitional justice discussed by Teitel, by contrast, was premised on the notion political transition and chiefly preoccupied with state actors, agendas and purposes.

That very mismatch triggered intriguing discussions about the limits of the statist paradigm in the former Yugoslavia and generated a set of new questions for civil society: How to engage with post-conflict states constructed through war and mass atrocities? How to address the regional and transnational dimension of justice in an environment where victims, perpetrators, witnesses and evidence are scattered across states borders? How to think about the role of international actors heavily involved in the region, such as the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and the European Union, and about the role of civil society itself?

It was the need to tackle these questions and dilemmas that ended up fostering civil society innovation to fill gaps and come up with alternatives, such as the regional initiative for RECOM. In her more recent work, Teitel engages with these developments in examining the role of civil society in globalizing transitional justice and experimenting with regional and bottom-up approaches to justice.

That scholarly engagement has been underpinned by Teitel’s dialogue and communication with activists and researchers in the Balkans over the past decade and a half, starting with a conference in Belgrade in the autumn of 2004 that played an important role in setting the civil society agenda for transitional justice. Another facet of the dialogic engagement and the layered relationship between scholarship and activism.

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Books, Courts & Tribunals, Featured, General, International Criminal Law, International Human Rights Law, International Humanitarian Law, Organizations, Public International Law, Symposia, Use of Force
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